Ask Rooted: How Do You Handle a Disruptive Student at Youth Group? Part One

annoyed teacher

Picture this: youth group is going relatively well from week to week, and you sense that students are getting more comfortable sharing. And then one night, that kid shows up…you know, the one who makes inappropriate outbursts in large group or takes your small group on a million tangents? (We’ve all been there!) In these moments of disruption, we want to communicate the grace of the gospel rather than our aggravation. We asked our Rooted writers to share their best tips for dealing with disruptions in a grace-filled way.

We hope you’ll join us for our next Rooted Webinar Monday, January 30 at 1:00 p.m. CST on a related topic: “Keeping Small Group Time on Track.” Panelists Cindy Lee and Mark Rector will join host Chelsea Erickson to share wisdom about facilitating small groups that foster fruitful discipleship. The hour-long call will feature an opportunity to brainstorm together as well as time for Q&A. We invite both vocational and lay youth workers to sign up!

Liz Edrington, Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN

When considering a disruptive student, I first need to pray and to look at my own heart. Can I see how this student is an image-bearer longing for love and deep connection? (even if their strategy for this is inhibiting that very thing) Can I see their glory? Or are the sounds of my own worried, exasperated, and/or irritated thoughts louder than the voice of the Spirit? I want to interrupt for love’s sake, not out of anger or trying to grasp for a sense of power/control.

Another thing I want to consider is the context of my relationship with the disruptive student. If there’s trust with this student, I can gently interrupt her (with validation, which is key: “I love your curiosity and passion here, Jen, but let’s get back on track with the question”). If the student is new, I may wait it out a little longer. Then I can hop in with an affirmative statement regarding the student speaking followed by a redirecting question. I may also follow up with a student I redirected to listen to his thoughts, making sure he knows I am for him.

The Spirit often works in ways that don’t fit my agenda. As I listen actively and attentively to a rabbit trail, my students could witness me extending loving patience and dignity to someone with whom they struggle to do that same thing. They could also witness me loving the group by gently moving in to recollect the conversation with an honoring acknowledgement of the interruption. (e.g. “You’ve got some wonderful thoughts on this, Joe, but I’m going to move us back toward the initial question—and I’d love to talk more with you later about what you were sharing.”)

It is wise for us to be aware of our default sin tendencies in situations like these. Are we more inclined to cut the speaker off to regain control, or are we more inclined to hide from confrontation because of our people-pleasing? Repentance often looks like trusting Jesus by moving in the opposite direction of our tendency. And let us always pray for wisdom to move for love’s sake—be that loving the disruptive student or the group as a whole.

Steve Eatmon, Associate Pastor at Chinese Bible Church of Maryland

I have learned a number of lessons (via many, many mistakes) regarding dealing with disruptive students. Here are six tips to utilize church discipline within the youth group in a way that is loving, God-honoring and protects the spiritual integrity of the group.

Find them a home–Students need to be engaged mentally (intellectually challenged), physically (given a role), and emotionally (experience belonging). Some may have special needs or mental health concerns that require more nuanced ways to engage them, so be aware of those needs.

Use the compliment sandwich –When you confront students (yes, when, not if), be sure to cover the critique with something they have done well and encouragement of what you believe they can be as they grow in God.

Be up front—Be loving even as you speak honestly about how students are behaving. Kids need to know where you and they stand.

Address students first, then parents—Give teenagers the respect to turn themselves around before going above their heads.

Document, document, document—This comes in handy when you have to confront parents or enlist the help of senior leadership in the church. It also helps when you have to explain specific behaviors to the student.

Be prepared to do what is necessary—A situation once got so bad I had to speak to a student’s family and tell that student not to come to the youth meeting for a time. Of course, this is the absolute last step, but as a youth minister, you can’t be afraid to go this route. The spiritual health of the rest of the group and the witness of the church is at stake (1 Corinthians 5).

Chelsea Kingston Erickson, Veteran Youth Minister and Rooted Staff in Hamilton, MA

One thing I have found hugely helpful in dealing with large group interruptions is to have adult leaders sprinkled throughout the room. Having leaders sit with teenagers communicates that we’re all learning and participating together; this practice also goes a long way to ease distractions. It can be challenging to create this side-by-side culture if it’s not currently your norm. Consider explaining to youth leaders that this is a big part of their “jobs” at youth group—to actively engage with students in games, teaching, and small groups (i.e. relational discipleship), and to quietly help the large group facilitator in managing the overall vibe of the room through these relationships.

Often the kids who are prone to outbursts, tangents, or inappropriate questions are the very ones who need our support and care the most. The one who derails small group by chit-chatting while others are sharing may actually need a leadership role. Recruit her to help you ask some of the small group questions. (You may be amazed at her capacity to keep others on track!) The student who repeatedly interrupts to make others laugh might need gentle support from an adult leader sitting nearby in order to focus.

A number of years ago we had a student with special needs in our group who was desperate for friendship. She would frequently ask a random question in the middle of our large group teaching time. The result was negative attention for her and distraction for the group. When a peer started inviting this girl to sit with her, her longings were partly met and disruptions were significantly minimized. Look for opportunities to encourage these connections wherever you can, and then watch to see God at work!

When disruptions happen, we can ask God to help us respond gently by the power of his Spirit, not our own force of will. (e.g. “I’m going to keep us on topic right now, but I’d love to talk with you more about that during snack!”) If and when we do lose our cool, we get to receive the grace of the gospel ourselves as we come clean before God and our students.